Art: Works of a Woman's Hand

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In 1954 Shinoda's work was included in a group exhibit at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. Two years later, she overcame bureaucratic obstacles to visit the U.S. Unmarried Japanese women were allowed visas for only three months; patiently applying for two-month extensions, one at a time, Shinoda managed to travel about the country for two years. She pulls out a scrapbook from this period. Leafing through it, she suddenly raises a hand and touches her cheek: "How young I looked!" An inspection is called for. The woman in the grainy, yellowing newspaper photograph could easily be the one sitting in this room. Told this, she nods and smiles. No translation necessary.

Her sojourn in the U.S. proved to be crucial in the recognition and development of Shinoda's art. Celebrities such as Actor Charles Laughton and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet bought her paintings and spread the good word. She also saw the works of the abstract expressionists, then the rage of the New York City art world, and realized that these Western artists, coming out of an utterly different tradition, were struggling toward the same goal that had obsessed her. Once she was back home, her work slowly made her famous.

Although Shinoda has used many materials (fabric, stainless steel, ceramics, cement), brush and ink remain her principal means of expression. She has said, "As long as I am devoted to the creation of new forms, I can draw even with muddy water." Fortunately, she does not have to. She points with evident pride to her inkstone, a velvety black slab of rock, with an indented basin, that is roughly a foot across and two feet long. It is more than 300 years old. Every working morning, Shinoda pours about a third of a pint of water into it, then selects an ink stick from her extensive collection, some dating back to China's Ming dynasty. Pressing stick against stone, she begins rubbing. Slowly, the-dried ink dissolves in the water and becomes ready for the brush. No two batches of sumi (India ink) are exactly alike; something old, something new. She uses color sparingly. Her clear preference is black and all its gradations: "In some paintings, sumi expresses blue better than blue."

It is time to go downstairs to the living quarters. A niece, divorced, and her daughter, 10, stay here with Shinoda; the artist who felt forced to renounce family and domesticity at the outset of her career seems to welcome it now. Sake is offered, poured into small cedar boxes and happily accepted. Hold carefully. Drink from a corner. Ambrosial. And just right for the surroundings and the hostess. A conservative renegade; a liberal traditionalist; a woman steeped in the male-dominated conventions that she consistently opposed. Her trail-blazing accomplishments are analogous to Picasso's. When she says goodbye, she bows. —By Paul Gray

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